Everything You Need to Know About Heating Tape

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Last updated: 
February 15, 2016

Everything You Need to Know about Heating TapeDeep in the middle of the winter season, we often find that our pipes need insulation, in order to keep them from freezing. The reason is obvious – if they freeze over, that means the water in them will freeze as well, and you’re all of a sudden cut off from your water supply. The easiest solution to fix that is by fitting some heating tape or heating cable on them, so that you ensure a continuous water flow for your residence all through the freezing season.

An easy definition or explanation of the device is that it’s simply a piece of tape or cable with some encased electrical wires which, when you plug it in, will regulate the temperature of your PVC, plastic or metal pipes, so that they don’t freeze over.

Heating tape versus heating cable

Many people often confuse heating tape and heating cable, believing they are one and the same thing, but they are mistaken. Normally, if you’re thinking about installing this device around your piping, you should know the difference between the two, so that you can make an informed and correct decision about which solution suits you best. There’s actually even a third type, the heating cord, but that one is less used than the first two.

Differences between heating tape, heating cable and cord

  • Heating tape vs Heating cableHeating cable is somewhat stiff, more like a garden hose than a cable per se, but it’s very good if you wish to wrap it around your pipes and it does not shrink; Heating tape if extremely flexible, therefore it’s better for tight contours and oddly shaped pipes; The heating chord is just as flexible as the tape, only that it allows you to be imprecise when wrapping.
  • Heating cord vs Heating tapeAs far as length goes, heating cable can be cut to length and you can also add terminations to it; the tape comes in fixed lengths, somewhere between 2 and 20 feet, based on its style and you should know that it cannot be cut or trimmed if you don’t have the right length; the heating chord has the main advantage of being built to order, but it can also be sold in fixed lengths, anywhere between 3 and 24 feet.
  • Unlike the other two types, heating cable is thusly built so that it won’t rise above a particular temperature. This is an advantage, because it means it will not overheat. Then again, bear in mind that you will still need a controller to regulate the temperature, like the simplest thermostat you can find.
  • For the other two you will need controllers as well, but the main difference is the fact that they do overheat, because, unlike the cable, they do not come encased in anything.
  • Another main difference is about the way they must be wrapped around pipes. Of all the three types, the one you need to be most careful about is the tape. It needs to be wrapped perfectly and tight around each pipe. The reason is that if there is even a small segment of tape with both sides exposed to the air, that particular segment will not transfer heat beyond that point and the tape will overheat and break down. The chord and cable are a lot more forgiving when it comes to wrapping.

Disambiguation of terms

You should also know that there is heat reflective tape on the market, which is not to be confused with heating tape. The heat reflective type comes in silver or gold and is mainly used by race car drivers to fix their heat soaking problem.

People also confuse it with duct tape and often wonder about what the duct tape’s resistance to heat is. While some types of duct tape and even the double one can take more or less heat, they won’t protect your pipes against frost. Heating tape is electrical and heats itself.

Types of heating tape

There are several types of heating tape sold in hardware stores, depending on their application:

  • Silicone rubber heat tapes – mostly used for applications up to 450°F, they resist to chemicals and to moisture. However, it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean they are completely chemical and water-proof.  They cannot be exposed to flowing water or be submersed. If you want, you can purchase this particular type of tape with an adjustable thermostat, so that you can keep the temperature under control. You can also buy a grounded version of it for applications up to 305°F.
  • Fiberglass-insulated heat tapes – this particular type doesn’t come with a built in thermostat, like the first one, but it does have a controller. You can purchase the grounded version of it, which you can use for applications to 482°F, the version which is meant solely for electrically non-conductive surfaces and the one that can be used for conductive surfaces. The last two can both be used for temperatures up to 900°F.
  • Heat tapes made of Samox – this is a woven type of fabric, resistant to very high temperatures up to 1400°F and it can be purchased in two versions: for electrical and non-electrical conductive surfaces.
  • Frostex heat tape – which also has a 3 watt per foot electric heat trace cable and which is best for mobile homes, because their water lines connect under the house, where the air is very cold and damp.
  • Heat sink thermal tape – especially made for attaching heat sinks to ICs, through the 3M thermal tape. It’s self-adhesive and it will bond better than glue or paste.

Heating tapeHow to install a heat tape

The first thing you have to do is to remove the old one. This might sound like an obvious step, but it’s important, because most people try to salvage the old heat tape or parts of it, which is not advisable. This is the type of equipment that should be thrown out when it’s broken, as it cannot be fixed and it’s dangerous to try to reuse it. A heating tape’s life span is between 3 and 5 years. The second step is to fasten it to the water line. The best thing here is to simply follow the instructions that came with it.

Make sure not to fasten it too tight. Also, the heat tape should never turn any sharp corners because a sharp bend is almost always going to make it fail in its purpose of heating the pipes. The solution is to just give it some room, when you reach the corner of the pipe, so that it doesn’t have to take a sharp turn. Don’t pull it on the pipe too tight, because you might pinch it.

Tips for using your heat tape

  • As far as safety and good functioning of your heat tape goes, never plug it in if there is no water in the water pipes;
  • After you have finished replacing it, make sure you do not leave the water line sitting directly on the ground;
  • If the heat tape doesn’t come with certain insulation of its own or if the instructions don’t specify that you can add some, then don’t, as it might cause it to overheat and break down;
  • If it so happens that your water pipe is going through a culvert, run the tape on it as far as you can, wrap it on the pipe and then shove some insulation around the culvert’s top, as a shield against the cold winter air, frost or rain;
  • You can test the heat tape, if you so desire. Simply stretch it all out and plug it in. See if it heats up evenly all the way. If you are testing it in the summer when it’s hot and you have  a thermostat, place that particular end in the freezer;
  • Know that a heat tape for pipes which has an inbuilt thermostat usually takes between 5 and 20 minutes to heat up. Also, those that come with a thermostat are usually labeled “automatic”.
  • If you really need to use an extension cord so that you can plug in the heat tape, always remember it needs to be an outdoor one and especially one that can resist very low temperatures;
  • Keep in mind that you must never plug in a heating tape if it is still coiled;
  • Do not install it on pipes that run through walls, floors and ceilings, but you can install it on the roof or in gutters;
  • Only buy the particular brand of heat tape that will suit your water pipe. For this you can do some research online or, if you are still unsure which one to buy, ask at the store, they should be able to help you;
  • It’s a good idea to both read very carefully and hold on to the instructions that come with it;
  • You can use it for a number of appliances, not just your outdoor pipes, like: plumbing, reptile cages, on your exhaust, to make your motor run better or in your gutters;
  • Use heat resistant one sided masking tape with it, if you need to cover something up;
  • You can also use solar power to activate it and use it for regulating the pipe temperature. You will still need for the installation to be thermostatically managed, though.
  • Some good and trustworthy brands to buy it from are Reptile Basics, which also sell the FlexWatt heat tape and the Teflon kind, Lowes, Menards and Raychem, where you can also buy it on sale.

Here is all you need to know about how to install, use and maintain a pipe heat tape. It is a very good solution to making sure your pipes don’t freeze over and, thusly, you never run out of water, but you need to remember to be careful with it, as it’s a piece of electrical equipment, designed for the outdoors and to be used near water and moisture.

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